Tens of thousands of Poles streamed through towns and cities across the country on Friday in what is expected to be the biggest set of protests so far against a court ruling paving the way for an almost total abortion ban.
Carrying placards with slogans such as “We want choice, not terror,” and “Girls just wanna have fundamental rights,” huge crowds marched through the centre of the capital Warsaw, while demonstrations were also held in others cities, including Krakow, Poznan, Wroclaw, Bialystok and Lublin.
“Our bodies are our business, not the government’s,” said Oliwia, who joined a protest in downtown Warsaw, carrying a banner reading “Don’t fuck with my freedom”.
Friday’s protests are the culmination of a wave of anger that has swept across Poland since the constitutional court ruled last week that a clause in a 1993 law allowing abortion in cases of severe foetal abnormalities was unconstitutional.
Once the ruling is published and takes effect, abortions will only be allowed in cases of rape, incest or where the life or health of the mother is under threat. Such cases accounted for 2.4 per cent of the 1,100 legal abortions carried out in Poland last year.
The dramatic tightening of rules which were already among the tightest in the EU has provoked a furious backlash from women’s rights groups and their supporters.
Police said almost half a million people joined protests across the country on Wednesday night, despite a ban on public gatherings put in place to stem the coronavirus pandemic. That has spiralled out of control in recent weeks and put intense pressure on Polish hospitals.
Prosecutors on Thursday threatened to file charges against organisers, warning that mass demonstrations would accelerate the spread of the virus, which has infected 340,834 Poles and killed 5,351.
“Organising street protests in these dramatic circumstances is extremely irresponsible,” the national prosecutor’s office said. “People who are organising illegal gatherings are causing a direct threat to the health and lives of many people, a fact of which they are well aware.”
For the most part, the protests over the past seven days have been peaceful. But on Friday in Warsaw aggressive counter-demonstrators throwing fireworks at protesters were reported. Police said they detained a couple of dozen football hooligans.
One target of protesters’ ire in recent days has been the Catholic church, which has long pushed for tougher abortion laws. Over the weekend, church services were disrupted, and some churches were daubed with pro-abortion slogans, a rare event in what remains one of Europe’s most Catholic countries.
However, the protests have also targeted Poland’s ruling conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party. Its MPs were instrumental in launching the challenge that brought abortion before the constitutional tribunal.
One opinion poll this week found a sharp drop in support for Law and Justice since the start of the protests. However, in that poll they still remained the most popular party.
“People are tired of [Law and Justice], by everything they do. It’s not only abortion, it’s also [their attacks on] LGBT rights and so on,” said Ola, who joined the protests in Warsaw.
In the first sign that Poland’s authorities were looking for ways to defuse the protests, President Andrzej Duda, an ally of Law and Justice, proposed legislation on Friday that would reintroduce the possibility of abortions in cases of foetal abnormalities, but only when these were “lethal”.